An innocuous-seeming U.S. Air Force press release. A serendipitous satellite image in Google Earth. Snapshots from a photographer on assignment at a Spanish air base. The crash of an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighter-bomber in the United Arab Emirates. These are some of the fragments of information that Italian aviation blogger David Cenciotti has assembled to reveal the best picture yet of the Pentagon’s secretive war in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
In a series of blog posts over the past two weeks, Cenciotti has described in unprecedented detail the powerful aerial force helping wage Washington’s hush-hush campaign of air strikes, naval bombardments and commando raids along the western edge of the Indian Ocean, including terror hot spots Yemen and Somalia. Cenciotti outlined the deployment of eight F-15Es from their home base in Idaho to the international air and naval outpost at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, north of Somalia.
Over the years there have been hints of the F-15s’ presence in East Africa, but “their actual mission remains a (sort-of) mystery,” Cenciotti writes. Based on the evidence, he proposes that the twin-seat fighter-bombers — one of the Air Force’s mainstay weapon systems in Afghanistan — are dropping bombs on al-Qaida-affiliated militants in Yemen. If true, that means the U.S. intervention in the western Indian Ocean is far more forceful, and risky, than previously suggested.
Ten years ago the Air Force openly acknowledged the initial F-15E rotation in Djibouti, but since then the flying branch has released few details. New official information on the Indian Ocean aerial armada has emerged only after airplanes crashed. An accident involving an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone in the Seychelles late last year forced the Pentagon to admit it was building a drone base on the island nation. Reporters followed the Seychelles lead to uncover additional Reaper bases in Yemen and Ethiopia. Armed drones operated by the CIA and the military have killed scores of militants in Somalia and Yemen under steadily loosening rules of engagement.
Similarly, the deaths of four American airmen in a crash in Djibouti in February confirmed the involvement of the secretive U-28 spy plane in the escalating intervention.
The F-15Es carry more bombs and fly much faster than the Cessna-size, propeller-driven Reapers. Where the long-endurance drones are persistent and patient, the twin-engine Strike Eagles are fast-reacting and powerful. “When you need to quickly reach a distant target and hit it with a considerable payload, you might find a Strike Eagle a better platform,” Cenciotti explains. On the other hand, “air strikes with conventional planes are considered less respectful of the local nation’s sovereignty than drones’ attacks,” he adds. “This could be the reason for keeping the eventual F-15E involvement in the area a bit confidential.”
Again, it was a crash that helped draw reporters’ attention to the F-15s in Djibouti. In early May a photographer friend of Cenciotti photographed several Strike Eagles passing through Spain’s Moron air base en route to an unspecified deployed location. One of the F-15s crashed near its next layover in the United Arab Emirates. (The two crew members ejected safely.) Cenciotti scrutinized the aircraft involved and matched them up with a Pentagon press release describing a change-of-command ceremony for a fighter squadron in Djibouti.
An image from Google Maps showing six F-15s on the ground in Djibouti helped confirm Cenciotti’s theory that Strike Eagles are active in the Indian Ocean region. Evidence the jets are bombing Yemen is more circumstantial: Cenciotti notes that the pro-U.S. Yemeni air force was on strike at the time of one widely reported air raid in the country, meaning another nation was likely responsible for the hit.
The 37-year-old Cenciotti rivals ace Aviation Week reporter Bill Sweetman for breaking news about military aircraft. But his strict focus on aviation means he misses other compelling evidence of the U.S. shadow war in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Navy maintains around 30 warships in the Indian Ocean as part of several international task forces. American destroyers have launched missiles and fired guns at terrorists in Somalia and Yemen.
But arguably the most interesting vessels in the area are also the least flashy. Lewis and Clark-class supply ships, normally used to carry fuel and cargo, have also been used as Afloat Forward Staging Bases — in essence, seaborne military camps for housing Special Forces and launching helicopters and small boats. The ships can be configured with makeshift jails for holding captured pirates and, in theory, terror suspects.
The Lewis and Clark class ship Carl Brashear visited Djibouti in early May, according to a military press release. Where the ship went next — and what exactly she did there — is unclear. But if Cenciotti’s investigation of the F-15s is any indication, there could be a surprising truth beneath the layers of official secrecy concealing America’s underreported Indian Ocean shadow war.